John Waters Looks Back and Forward Prior to His Film Society Retrospective
John Waters. Image courtesy of The Kobal Collection.
John Waters began moving the pendulum of taste and decorum on the big screen, remarkably, 50 years ago this year. The Baltimore native who brought filth to the big screen in such romps as Mondo Trasho (1969), Multiple Maniacs (1970), Pink Flamingos (1972), and Female Trouble (1974) made his first short, Hag In a Black Leather Jacket, in 1964. Together with his high-school friend turned on-screen muse Divine, Waters paved a filmmaking DIY ethos decades before crowdfunding, social media, and the Internet made going it alone (or relatively so) plausible.
Following his ’70s classics, which also includes Desperate Living (1977), Waters continued to trailblaze new realms of storytelling with Polyester (1981) and Hairspray (1988), which eventually lead to a successful Broadway production. The film starred some of his "Dreamlander" stalwarts, including Divine and Mink Stole, but also a new cast of personalities such as Ricki Lake. Johnny Depp and Patricia Hearst were an unlikely combination of stars in Waters's 1990 feature Cry-Baby and Kathleen Turner turned the dutiful suburban-mother paradigm on its head with comedy/thriller Serial Mom in 1994. Edward Furlong and Christina Ricci starred in 1998's Pecker, while Cecil B. Demented featured Melanie Griffith and Stephen Dorff in another comedy-thriller about a psycho independent filmmaker and his posse who kidnap an A-list Hollywood actress to force her into their own underground movie. His most recent feature, A Dirty Shame (2004), infamously received an NC-17 rating. Starring Tracey Ullman, Chris Isaak, and Selma Blair, the film finds an uptight woman who turns into a sex addict after getting hit on the head, eventually falling in with an underground cadre of sex addicts in suburban Baltimore.
As well as being a film director and screenwriter, Waters is also an actor, stand-up comedian, visual artist, art collector, and journalist. He regularly hosts on-stage interviews at the annual Provincetown International Film Festival in Cape Cod where he resides during the summer. He also had a long-time gig hosting the Independent Spirit Awards in Santa Monica and he's toured around the world doing live events for lucky fans. Most recently, Waters wrote Carsick, which Amazon describes as "A cross-country hitchhiking journey with America’s most beloved weirdo…armed with wit, a pencil-thin mustache, and a cardboard sign that reads 'I’m Not Psycho.'" The book is the latest endeavor for Waters, whose energy seems limitless.
Danny Mills and Divine in Pink Flamingos. Image courtesy of Dreamland Productions / The Kobal Collection.
FilmLinc spoke with John Waters just before the announcement that he'll be the subject of a full retrospective at the Film Society called "Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?," his first in the U.S. During the conversation, Waters talked about his longtime relationship with hitchhiking, owing his career to Jonas Mekas, meeting Divine in school, his ongoing love affair with Baltimore, and his longer road to recognition in New York. "For once I can honestly say I'm really excited about this and with no irony," said Waters as we began this interview. It is beyond mutual.
FL: You have a new book out, Carsick: John Waters Hitchhikes Across America, about your travels across the country. Any possibility of it becoming a movie?
JW: I think Carsick could definitely become a movie. The more fictional parts of the book are very much like my movies and there's been some talk about it becoming a movie and that's all I can say. I genuinely think yes, why not? There are other best sellers that have become movies and this one [has been on the best-seller list] so I don't know why Carsick can't.
You know, what ruined hitchhiking is the movies. Every hitchhiking scene you see something hideous happens. Even in my own movies hitchhiking is terrible.
In Mondo Trasho somebody is hitchhiking and then somebody moons them, actually it was Divine as a man who moons them. We were arrested filming that scene in real life. In Pink Flamingos, somebody is hitchhiking and they run up to the car and Divine gives them the finger and drives away. And in another scene Mink [Stole] and David Lochary picking up hitchhikers and them impregnating them and selling their babies to lesbians. So hitchhiking in my own movies has a pretty grim outcome too but I've actually never had a bad experience hitchhiking to this day—from my youth to the book.
FL: I remember seeing hitchhikers a lot when I was a kid, but I don't see that so much anymore, but then again I live in New York, so I guess, who would hitchhike…
JW: I hitchhiked for New York magazine in Manhattan with a sign saying "The Frick Collection" and got a ride there and back, so even [in NYC] you can hitchhike. Maybe you should hitchhike to come see my retrospective with a sign that says 'Fifty Years of John Waters, Give Me a Ride!'
Divine and David Lochary in Multiple Maniacs. Photo by Lawrence Irvine © Dreamland Productions.
FL: Good segue into your retrospective... Since it's 50 years of filmmaking, can I go back and tap your memory a bit? What prompted you to pick up a camera and make your first short, Hag in a Black Leather Jacket?
JW: I would say Jonas Mekas completely, I owe my career to Jonas Mekas. As a young boy in Baltimore, I'd read his film column in The Village Voice every week and Film Culture magazine, and it was all about underground movies and that's what I wanted to be. I'd go to New York on weekends and see underground movies at [places] like the Film-makers' Cooperative, and that's really all I wanted to do. I never thought I'd make what would be later called independent movies or Hollywood movies.
FL: When did your title "The Pope of Trash" come about?
JW: William S. Burroughs called me that for either Crackpot or Shock Value. I believe that was ’80 or ’81. I was the speaker at his 100th birthday. It was great to be called that and all of the other titles I've had have been said with amusement. First was "The Prince of Puke" and that was [from] an editorial for me in The Baltimore Sun because Brenda Richardson of the Baltimore Museum of Art gave me a retrospective for Hairspray before I was acceptable in any way. There was outrage by people saying it was taxpayers money etc. The Baltimore Sun gave a pro-Baltimore Art Museum editorial saying say they should do it and called it "The Prince of Puke."
Then Burroughs gave me the [moniker] The Pope of Trash and then others tried to compete. There was "The Anal Ambassador," "The Ayatollah of Filth," and many different ones I can't remember, but The Prince of Puke and The Pope of Trash are the two that stuck, and I always joked about what would The Prince of Trash wear? A James Brown robe and an Imperial Margarine Crown and a scepter? Actually, I have all that now even as I'm speaking to you. I wear that around my house.
FL: Is Baltimore still an inspirational locale for storytelling and filmmaking?
JW: It has the sexiest people and it's where I get all my humor. It's better than ever. We have more edge than New York by 10,000 times. [Laughs]
Mink Stole, Jean Hill, and Susan Lowe in Desperate Living. Photo by Steve Yeager © Charm City Productions.
FL: Let's talk about your New York connection. You've shown your movies here for decades, I'm sure?
JW: It's one of the last places I showed my films. The early ones played first in Baltimore and then in Provincetown, MA. Eat Your Make Up was shown once in a church and both Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs played all around the country including L.A. and San Francisco before they ever played in New York. And they only played in New York after Pink Flamingos became a midnight hit at the Elgin Theater, and then the Elgin played Mondo Trasho and Multiple Maniacs a few of times. The Film-makers' Cooperative released Mondo Trasho and used to get bookings all around the country. I would go around the country, sometimes with Divine, and we'd rent theaters and stand out on the corner and give out flyers.
[For] Eat Your Make Up in Provincetown, Mary Vivian Pearce dressed as the character and gave out candy lipsticks and flyers and she'd say, "Here, eat it, read it and come!" My mother would send flyers that she'd get printed in Baltimore with the name of the theater printed and we'd stand on the corner giving them out. I [also] made Divine dress in full drag the way she was dressed in Pink Flamingos and go on the subway and give out flyers. She'd be arrested now if she'd try to do that.
FL: When you first met Harris Glenn Milstead, was Divine just itching to be free in all her splendor?
JW: Divine was never dressed like that in real life, never ever ever… He dressed as a man, he didn't walk around like that. I first met him in high school. He was an overweight nerd and was picked on every day and bullied mercilessly, not only by students but also the teachers. He used that rage later to become that character, but Divine never walked around dressed like that. Divine had no desire to be a woman.
Mary Garlington, Divine, and Ken King in rehearsal for John Waters's Polyester. Photo by Larry Dean © New Line Cinema.
FL: When was the last time you watched Female Trouble, which I believe you've said is your personal favorite?
JW: It's my favorite Divine movie because it's a vehicle that was totally written for Divine where she starts as a teenager and ends as an adult dying in the electric chair. It's like a Susan Hayward picture. The movie was written as a Divine vehicle. I never did that again. I always thought it should be re-released in Sensurround. Remember that in Earthquake  and Rollercoaster ? The sound is so loud it would shake the ceiling and Mink screams so much in that movie. I want to re-release it in Sensurround to make people go deaf from watching it. [Laughs]
FL: How has your relationship with your movies, especially the earlier ones, evolved over the years?
JW: It's like the old cliché, they're like your kids. Mine always have learning disabilities and you always root for the ones that didn't do quite as well at the box office. They're all the same to me though. I never understood why Hairspray was a hit and the other one wasn't. They're all the same, but they'd just tell a story in a different way, but the values are the same. But do you think I sit around and watch my own movies? I don't, but of course they're still out there.
FL: So how would you describe those values that your movies commonly share?
JW: The values of my films are mind your own business, don't judge others, and exaggerate what people use against you, turn it into a style and win. Every one of those movies has that. In Pink Flamingos, Divine is minding her own business in the beginning, sitting in a trailer and writing her memoirs about being the filthiest person alive when she's [suddenly] attacked by two jealous perverts. Divine hasn't done anything wrong. She's happily living with her traveling companion, son, and her grandmother. But when she's attacked, a war starts. Still she was politically correct in a way, it was the others who were jealous and wanted power and all the things that Divine had effortlessly and they had to struggle for and never get to that level. They were lower echelon. It's the same in all of them anyway, they're all battles. A Dirty Shame is about sex addicts vs. neuters. I'm a little of both sides. That's why they're never mean because I understand both sides.
John Waters on the set of Pink Flamingos. Photo by Steve Yeager © Charm City Productions.
FL: Is it harder to shock now?
JW: I never did it just for that, I wanted to make people laugh. Look, I understand why you ask that with Pink Flamingos. But people laughed. It's easy to shock people, it's not even funny anymore to just shock people. That's what Hollywood tries to do and it's not funny— though I guess sometimes it is. I just try to take you into a world that you wouldn't be comfortable with and have you not judge others and laugh and maybe change your opinion—including me! I try to go into worlds I'm not comfortable with.
FL: How do you see the filmmaking environment now in general? I'd imagine you'd say it's harder now...
JW: I haven't made one... I haven't gotten the money, so definitely yes! [Laughs]. Like everybody [before] you make your first movies with a bunch of friends for no money. But I have four employees, I can't go make a movie for a few hundred dollars—and I don't want to. I don't want to be a faux 68-year-old underground filmmaker. I'm still trying to make movies and have meetings all the time about it. But my book is a best seller, so you know, I just go where they want me.
FL: We're excited to have you at the Film Society for "Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?" And of course this Wednesday night you'll have a pre-visit here when you interview Isabelle Huppert...
JW: I'm really excited, she really is my favorite movie star. I've prepared and have a lot of questions. I'm excited to see her. I met Isabelle Huppert once when I sat next to her at a dinner in Paris, but am looking forward to meeting her again in New York.
[Tickets to "Fifty Years of John Waters: How Much Can You Take?" and "Movies I'm Jealous I Didn't Make" will go on sale Thursday, August 14.]